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Historical and Modern Religions of Korea

Praying with lanterns (

Praying with lanterns (

Unlike some cultures where a single religion is dominant, Korean culture includes a wide variety of religious elements that have shaped the people's way of thinking and behavior. In the early stages of history in Korea, religious and political functions were combined but later became distinct.

Historically, Koreans lived under the influences of shamanism, Buddhism, Daoism or Confucianism and in modern times, the Christian faith has made strong in roads into the country, bringing forth yet another important factor that may change the spiritual landscape of the people. The rapid pace of industrialization which occurred within a couple of decades compared to a couple of centuries in the West, has brought about considerable anxiety and alienation while disrupting the peace of mind of Koreans, encouraging their pursuit of solace inreligious activities. As a result, the population of religious believers has expanded markedly with religious institutions emerging asian influential social organizations.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution in Korea. According to a 1995 social statistics survey, 50.7 percent of Koreans follow a specific religious faith. Buddhists account for some 46 percent followed by Protestants at 39 percent and Catholics at 13 percent of the religious population.

Shamanism is a primitive religion which does not have a systematic structure but permeates into the daily lives of the people through folklore and customs. Neolithic man in Korea had animistic beliefs thatevery object in the world possessed a soul.

Man was also believed to have a soul that never dies. So a corpse was laid with its head toward the east in the direction of the sunrise. Neolithic man believed that while good spirits like the sun would bring good luck to human beings, evil spirits would bring misfortune.

Shamanism gradually gave way to Confucianism or Buddhism as a tool for governing the people but its influence lingered on. The shaman, mudang* in Korean, is an intermediary who can link the living with the spiritual world where the dead reside. The shaman is considered capable of averting bad luck, curing sickness and assuring a propitious passage from this world to the next. The shaman is also believed to resolve conflicts and tensions that might exist between the living and the dead.

Korean shamanism includes the worship of thousands of spirits and demons that are believed to dwell in every object in the natural world,including rocks, trees, mountains and streams as well as celestial bodies.

Shamanism in ancient Korea was a religion of fear and superstition, but for modern generations, it remains a colorful and artistic ingredient of their culture. A shamanistic ritual, rich with exorcist elements,presents theatrical elements with music and dance.

The introduction of more sophisticated religions like Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism did not result in the abandonment of shamanistic beliefs and practices. They assimilated elements of shamanistic faith and coexisted peacefully. Shamanism has remained an underlying religion of the Korean people as well as a vital aspect of their culture.